Looking Outside the Borders: The bicycle boom in Seville, Spain

by Zach Vanderkooy, Bikes Belong Foundation. Originally published in the Alliance for Biking & Walking 2012 Benchmarking Report.

Seville’s embrace of the bicycle is decidedly 21st century. As recently as 2004, bicycling in this city of 700,000 was seen as a fringe activity for elite athletes and people too poor to own a car. There was no bicycle infrastructure to speak of, and the few Sevillianos who did use bikes for utilitarian purposes (0.2% of all trips in 2000) were practically invisible on the streets and in public life. Cars and trucks dominated the transportation landscape. For the average person to ride a bike to work or school was unimaginable.

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For people living in most American cities, this story feels awfully familiar. That’s why Seville’s remarkable transformation is drawing excited attention on our side of the Atlantic. In just five years, bicycling has grown from a statistically nonexistent mode of transportation to a significant—if not yet ordinary—part of daily life. Seville’s engineers built a network of comfortable separated bikeways connecting the city that now carries 7% of all traffic. It has implemented a state-of-the-art bike sharing system, offering residents and visitors affordable access to more than 2,000 bicycles stationed throughout the city. And it has redesigned many plazas, squares, and streets to make them more inviting spaces for those traveling on foot and on two wheels. The investments are paying dividends more quickly than anyone figured.

Traffic congestion and pollution are declining for the first time in 30 years. Businesses are thriving along bike routes and around the newly improved public spaces that are breathing fresh life into the central city. The number of car trips into the historic city center has plummeted from 25,000 a day to 10,000, freeing valuable space for residents to park and visitors to linger. More than 70,000 bike trips are made every day, up from just 2,500 in 2002. Bicycling has given Sevillianos a healthy, speedy new way to get around.

Designing a better city

When it came to designing Seville’s bicycle infrastructure, the city looked north for inspiration. David Muñoz de la Torre, Director of Seville’s Bike Program, cites the Netherlands as a key influence in shaping the city’s bikeway system. “We wanted to create a complete network, not a piecemeal system,” he emphasized. Nothing discourages potential bike riders more than bike lanes that end abruptly, forcing them to mix with fast-moving cars. Seville’s bikeways continue through intersections, around roundabouts, and across zigzags, making navigation a breeze — just follow the impossible-to-miss bright green path and you’ll stay on route. All the bikeways along major roads are physically separated from car and pedestrian traffic as much as possible. City leaders explain that protection from traffic is a key factor in making the system appealing to less experienced riders, particularly children, women, and older people. “Our design target is a 65-year old woman with groceries,” explained Muñoz de la Torre. He reasons that if bicycling is safe for her, it is safe for everyone.

The entire 87-mile network cost about $43 million to install between 2007 and 2009—a bargain when you consider that a single mile of urban freeway in the United States easily costs twice as much. With the core bicycling network now in place, Muñoz de la Torre says the city is focused on improving difficult crossings and tight squeezes on the streets, installing more bike parking, and launching public education campaigns as the next steps to boost bicycle use. The city expects 15% of all trips in Seville to be made by bike in 2015.

Change isn’t easy—but it can happen overnight

800px-Sevilla2005July_067In order to build support for its rapid urban transformation, Seville’s leaders had to win the favor of a public that had little familiarity with bicycling and merchants skeptical that customers would arrive on bike and foot instead of in cars. The city hosted hundreds of public meetings and charrettes—design workshops involving the public—to incorporate ideas from neighborhoods into plans for newly configured public spaces and roadways. Initial opposition to removing or relocating car parking was fierce, but business owners came to realize that streets filled with pedestrians and bicyclists create more opportunities for folks to spontaneously stop in a shop or café. Some controversy remains, but polls show both residents and businesses are predominantly pleased with the changes. The rise in bicycling is a bright spot in tough economic times, as stores, restaurants, and plazas of the central city are usually packed with residents and tourists.

If they can do it, why can’t we?

For U.S. cities just beginning to build bikeway networks, Seville is an inspiring example of how quickly results can be achieved with focused investments. This scorching hot, car-centered Spanish city is far different from the Dutch and Danish cities usually celebrated as bicycling Meccas. Seville’s story challenges the common assumption that biking and walking have always been a way of life in European cities. With families strolling and bikes rolling on avenues that just 5 years ago were filled with roaring cars and trucks, it’s impossible not to ask the question: If Seville can do it, why not Dallas, Atlanta, or Los Angeles?

Quick Facts

  • Seville added 87 miles of new bike infrastructure in 36 months between 2007 and 2009.
  • 85% of the space came from removal of car parking and travel lanes; 15% came from pedestrian space (which was compensated for by major, new additions to public space in other places).
  • The improvements increased the percentage of all trips taken by bicycle from 0.4% to ~ 7%.
  • In 2005, the Alameda de Hercules, a major public plaza, was redesigned to be more inviting to people on bikes and on foot. More than 100 public meetings were held to discuss the plan, which required reallocating 200 parking spaces to make room for new public space. Initially neighbors and local businesses strongly opposed the changes, but now 22% of customers arrive by bike and businesses along the plaza are thriving.
  • City Council passed a law that restricts non-resident auto access into the cramped central city; the law reduced the daily number of cars in downtown from 25,000 to 10,000, drastically reducing congestion.
  • “Great is the enemy of good.” The city’s infrastructure emphasizes network connectivity, not perfection. It’s far from the polished bikeways of Northern Europe, but the protected bikeways of Seville are safe, convenient, and get you where you need to go without interruption.
  • City population: 700,000; metro area, 1.5 million.